The prom dresses, fresh and glittering, were laid out on two long tables, like food at a buffet.
Fifteen teenage girls from Germantown were led into the game room at the Wissahickon Boys & Girls Club and invited to do something that kids from low-income neighborhoods are rarely asked to do: Take one for yourself.
Tentative at first, the girls quickly warmed to the Cinderella moment, choosing dresses, then holding them against their bodies, using one another as mirrors.
Each asked, “How do I look?” — a potentially fraught question for any teenager. The sweetly supportive responses didn’t vary much:
“You look beautiful.”
The girls’ assessments warmed Sam Sisakhti, the man who’d supplied the dresses — all new, worth between $40 to $200 apiece — through his Boston-based charity, the Believe in Yourself Project.
Sisakhti is the founder and CEO of UsTrendy, an online marketplace for independent designers to sell their clothes. He’s planning to quit the business to run the charity, which has distributed thousands of dresses in the last two years.
The dresses don’t come from UsTrendy; they’re either donated to the charity, or bought by Sisakhti.
“Philanthropy is just something I always wanted to do,” said Sisakhti, 35. “I’ve made money, so why not do good to help people?”
Sisakhti has contributed to a growing trend. Many who work in fashion incorporate social consciousness into their brands these days, said Chris Baeza, interim program director of design and merchandising at Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media, Art and Design. “Any business that wants to be relevant in fashion anymore has to be driven by more than profit” to garner attention from millennials and Generation Z types, who are attracted to companies that consider people and the planet.
When Sisakhti started UsTrendy, he would give away dresses to celebrities, hoping for buzz. But he found working with Hollywood agents to be “a pain.” So one day, he showed up unannounced at an agency that serves poor people in Boston and dropped off frocks originally meant for the likes of Reese Witherspoon and Cate Blanchett. It made him feel great.
Now, Sisakhti is the Santa Claus of formal wear, traveling from city to city, delivering dresses to low-income neighborhoods. His goal is to give away 10,000 this year.
But there’s another element to Sisakhti’s largesse. When he first gave away dresses, the kids would post photos of themselves online, where trolls would tear at the girls, eviscerating them in bullying, vicious posts.
So now, at every venue, Sisakhti invites experts to discuss body image, body shaming, and self-esteem.
Earlier this week, when the Germantown girls gathered on spring’s first warm day, Roxborough clinical psychologist Amy Langsam was there to speak with them.
“True or false?” Langsam began. “Photos of models are real and accurate.”
“False,” the girls declared in one voice.
“Everything you read on social media is real.”
Talk went on for a while and while they were obliging, the girls were more interested in what was arrayed on the tables.
“Oh, you burned my finger, you’re so hot!” exclaimed Kia McClure, a Boys & Girls Club team leader, to Hulwah Al-Athariyyah, 14, an Abraham Lincoln High School ninth grader. McClure works with the teenagers and selected this group of girls for Sisakhti. Athariyya cast her eyes downward and smiled as she ran her hand over her shining silver dress. “I’ll probably wear it to a freshman dance,” she said.
McClure said she wanted her charges to “know they’re somebody, and loved.” She added, “A lot of them have never gotten anything like this.”
She had made the day a surprise. McClure had asked the girls ahead of time what their dress sizes were but didn’t say why. As it happened, none of the girls owned dresses and had to guess at what would fit.
Seeming to decide it on the spot, McClure announced: “We are going to have a ball and you’ll be able to waltz.” It was as though McClure, 49, herself a former club member, could envision the girls in their new dresses dancing with scrubbed and polished boys counting 1, 2, 3 on the worn wooden floor of the game room, creating a night that stays stuck in memory.
“I want them to have that,” McClure said, smiling. “Someone wanted it for me when I was their age,” she added, momentarily lost in a remembrance of her own.
“I don’t want sparkle,” declared Korie Eldemire, 13, a seventh grader at Henry H. Houston Elementary. “Just a normal dress I could wear to family occasions. I don’t go out that much.”
India Cannon, 17, in the 11th grade at Central High School, selected a blue lace dress. “We’re having a junior prom at Reading Terminal Market,” she said. Cannon wants to be a behavioral neuroscientist because it’s “like reading people’s minds and the closest I can come to having a superpower.”
She added: “I’m taking away a lot from this. It makes me feel important to be included. People really want to help us.”
McClure beamed as Cannon spoke. “Look at my babies,” she said.
Before they left, Sisakhti asked the girls to write down their life goals as well as some more immediate ones, like getting good grades and participating more in class. He promised to check in with McClure to see who makes the mark. Sisakhti will mail a second dress to anyone who does.
He said he can’t wait to hear from McClure, and distribute more dresses.
“Giving away dresses was the best year I had in business,” he said. “I want to devote my life to this.”